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Hansen paper emphasizes importance of retention and expansion of nuclear power for health and climate reasons

Mean number of deaths prevented annually by nuclear power, 1971-2009. Credit: ACS, Hansen et al. Click to enlarge.

A new study by James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha from the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute has found that global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2-eq) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning. The estimated human deaths caused by nuclear power from 1971 to 2009 were far lower than the avoided deaths: 4,900, or about 370 times lower than the result for avoided deaths.

Projecting ahead, on the basis of global projection data that takes into account the effects of the Fukushima accident, Hansen and Kharecha also calculated that nuclear power could additionally prevent an average of 420,000−7.04 million deaths and 80−240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels by mid-century, depending on which fuel it replaces. Large-scale expansion of unconstrained natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than expansion of nuclear power, according to their analysis, which is published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Left. Cumulative net deaths prevented assuming nuclear power replaces fossil fuels. (a) Results for the period 1971− 2009, showing mean values (labeled) and ranges for the baseline historical scenario. Results for (b) the high-end and (c) low-end projections of nuclear power production by the IAEA for the period 2010−2050. Error bars reflect the ranges for fossil fuel mortality factors. The larger columns in panels b and c reflect the all coal case and are labeled with mean values; the smaller columns reflect the all gas case; values for the latter are not shown because they are all simply a factor of ∼10 lower.
Right. Cumulative net GHG emissions prevented assuming nuclear power replaces fossil fuels. Same panel arrangement as at left, except mean values for all cases are labeled. Error bars reflect the ranges for the fossil fuel emission factors.
Credit: ACS, Kharecha and Hansen. Click to enlarge.

...our results underscore the importance of avoiding a false and counterproductive dichotomy between reducing air pollution and stabilizing the climate, as elaborated by others. If near-term air pollution abatement trumps the goal of long-term climate protection, governments might decide to carry out future electric fuel switching in even more climate-impacting ways than we have examined here. For instance, they might start large-scale production and use of gas derived from coal (“syngas”), as coal is by far the most abundant of the three conventional fossil fuels. While this could reduce the very high pollution-related deaths from coal power, the GHG emissions factor for syngas is substantially higher (between ∼5% and 90%) than for coal, thereby entailing even higher electricity sector GHG emissions in the long term.

In conclusion, it is clear that nuclear power has provided a large contribution to the reduction of global mortality and GHG emissions due to fossil fuel use. If the role of nuclear power significantly declines in the next few decades, the International Energy Agency asserts that achieving a target atmospheric GHG level of 450 ppm CO2-eq would require “heroic achievements in the deployment of emerging low-carbon technologies, which have yet to be proven. Countries that rely heavily on nuclear power would find it particularly challenging and significantly more costly to meet their targeted levels of emissions.”

Our analysis herein and a prior one strongly support this conclusion. Indeed, on the basis of combined evidence from paleoclimate data, observed ongoing climate impacts, and the measured planetary energy imbalance, it appears increasingly clear that the commonly discussed targets of 450 ppm and 2 °C global temperature rise (above preindustrial levels) are insufficient to avoid devastating climate impacts; we have suggested elsewhere that more appropriate targets are less than 350 ppm and 1 °C. Aiming for these targets emphasizes the importance of retaining and expanding the role of nuclear power, as well as energy efficiency improvements and renewables, in the near-term global energy supply.

—Kharecha and Hansen

To estimate historically prevented deaths and GHG emissions, the team used data for global annual electricity generation by energy source from 1971 to 2009, then applied mortality and GHG emissions factors—deaths and emissions per unit electric energy generated, respectively—for relevant electricity sources). For the projection period 2010−2050, they based their estimates on post-Fukushima nuclear power trajectories given by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

For the historical period 1971−2009, they assumed that all nuclear power supply in a given country and year would instead have been delivered by fossil fuels (specifically coal and natural gas).

For the projection period 2010−2050, they calculated human deaths and GHG emissions that could result if all projected nuclear power production is canceled and again replaced only by fossil fuels. The authors note that some or most of this hypothetically canceled nuclear power could be replaced by power from renewables, which have generally similar impact factors as nuclear. Results for the projection period should ultimately be viewed as upper limits on potentially prevented impacts from future nuclear power, the authors suggested.

(Dr. Hansen, a long-time advocate for action to mitigate anthropogenic climate change, is retiring from NASA to enable him to increase his activism.)


  • Pushker A. Kharecha and James E. Hansen (2013) Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power. Environmental Science & Technology doi: 10.1021/es3051197



Just tell the millions with shortened lives displaced by radiation accidents and get your private financing and insurance.

Thomas Pedersen

What millions with shortened lives?

The millions breathing coal fumes?

Kit P

This study completely ignores the huge benefit of having electricity. India gets 70% of its power from coal but about 600 million in India without power cook with biomass resulting in significant indoor air pollution. India problem is a shortage of coal. Same with China.

West coast port in the US are trying to get permits to export more low sulfur PRB coal to Asia.

OECD countries have demonstrated that coal can be mined and used with insignificant environmental impacts. The cost of environmental controls raises the power cost to that nuclear power is competitive with coal.

So what do countries do when the can not get enough fossil fuels to meet huge demands of modern society. They start building nuke plants.

Kit P

"displaced by radiation accidents"

A large number of people were displaced by a natural disaster.

Kit P

“The millions breathing coal fumes? ”

I am betting that you can not find anything that is any different then just the same junk science used against nuclear. Take your best shot.


You simply ignore all data which does not fit your thesis, and offer none of your own.
Here is the latest of many studies:

'Using photochemical source apportionment modeling and a health impact function, they attributed PM2.5 and ozone air quality levels, population exposure and health burden to 23 industrial point, area, mobile and international emission sectors in the Continental US in 2005 and 2016.

Between the two years studied, the number of PM2.5 and ozone-related deaths attributable to power plants and mobile sources fell from about 68,000 (90% confidence interval from 48,000 to 87,000) to about 36,000 (90% confidence intervals from 26,000 to 47,000). Area source mortality risk grows slightly between 2005 and 2016, due largely to population growth.'

You have nothing to back up your absurd notion that the emissions from coal plants in the US are harmless and health giving, although to be sure they are less lethal than they were.

I repeat, you have nothing at all to substantiate your claims.

The evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.

Roger Pham

Nuclear energy is great for locations with low solar or wind potential. I hope that Dr. Hansen would give equal importance to solar and wind energy where these are in abundance. The advantange of solar and wind is the low tech nature of these, allowing a lot of low-skilled labor and hence employment prospect for many, far more than nuclear development can deliver. Nuclear requires more reliable workers and higher skills, which seems to be in shorter and shorter supply, due to the general devolution of the human specie.


@KP, to simplify - [nuclear power plants]..just get your private financing and insurance.

Puff - no nuclear..


Burning fossil fuels and biomass are extremely costly in human life, extra health care and life insurance cost and very high cost of reduced productivity.

If we ever take the time to add all direct and indirect cost, the majority would quickly stop burning fossil fuels and biomass.

The best solution would be to electrify all domestic, public, industrial uses + private and public transports with clean electricity from wind, sun, geothermal, waves and nuclear.

China's increasing death rate from fossil fuel and biomass burning, (over 1.3M/year) and other related cost is something to be duly considered by the new administration.


Inventing deaths is all very well, unless of course you have any ambition to be taken seriously.
Your hobby horse is your own affair, but don't expect to be humoured about your fantasies.

You are correct that the costs of nuclear have been put up, mainly by absurd regulation, which starts from the utterly false premise that the risks of nuclear are unique.

So the nutters who have increased costs and opposed nuclear have directly contributed to the millions of real, not fantasy, deaths from air pollution which a faster development of nuclear power could have mitigated.

Their latest triumph is to generate hysteria regarding Fukushima, so that in response to an accident which so far has had no confirmed radiation deaths, evacuation was carried out over a much wider area than necessary and involving tens of thousands more people than necessary, so causing some hundreds of avoidable deaths in the elderly.

The consequences of stupidity sufficiently pronounced are indistinguishable from those of malice.


We can reduce the amount and duration of nuclear waste with fast reactors. We have enough thorium and depleted uranium to power the world for 1000 years. Let's do the right thing for humanity.


To have Nuclear Power promoted by the twin sources of nutter environmentalism is a farce and a disgrace. They can say all the lives that nuclear power would have saved but their efforts to fight and not promote nuclear power over the past 30 years is rediculous.

Saying mea culpa after what they have done to demonize technology, and fight its implementation rings a might hollow.

To see the posts here, from minds that they have filled with drivel, still denying there are positive aspects from fission that in retrospect far out weigh the bad, is to see the mindless monsters that their efforts have created.

There was a plethora of even then obsolescent coal fired power that continue to operate to this day, under minimal grandfathered pollution allowances, that were slated for closure in the early 1980s. These plants have continued to exist as their was no other choice after the nukes to replace them were bankrupted and cancelled, simply because of their organizations demagogic opposition to all nuclear fission power.

When you chose demagogy, it rapidly turns into across the board opposition based on half truths and FEAR. Of such are Birkenau and Auschwitz built.

Genuine critics knew that some changes but a finite number, had to be done,to finsihand perfect the designs, but that did not apeal to the likes of Hansen et al, who were adamant that throwing the baby out with the bathwater was the proper thing to do.

When the presently building nuclear plants, which are now walkaway passive, come in on budgeted costs, and on time, I hope some of this non rational opposition and fear can be appeased. We can then get on with providieng real power answers, and not will-of-the- wisps infantile wishes that don't actually work in practice.

Richard C Burton

so you proponents of nuclear power, how will you feel if Syria,Iran,Iraq,and Cuba want nuclear power too? and how bout North Korea and Pakistan? I still say the dangers from nuclear proliferation alone, far outweigh the benefits...It will take only one real nuclear bomb(or one "dirty bomb") going off to far outweigh all these claimed benefits. Not just from the explosion, but from the aftermath of the very likely nuclear war that will follow!

Kit P

“Nuclear requires more reliable workers and higher skills, ”

That is true but it does not take a lot of people to run a nuke plant. Reactor operators and nuke plant operators are very well paid. The navy and utilities have training programs for motivated kids out of high school.

My company has a program with a local university. Out technicians work outages in the spring and fall. The remaining part of the year we pay them to go to college. It takes a few years longer to get an engineering degree but they do not have college loans to pay off.

Just tell the millions with shortened lives displaced by radiation accidents and get your private financing and insurance.
There appears to be a decrease in mortality and morbidity up to roughly 50 mSv/yr chronic exposure.  This is many times the average exposure, which demands that you answer the question:  what shortened lives?  Chernobyl cleanup workers seem to be the only ones.
@KP, to simplify - [nuclear power plants]..just get your private financing and insurance.

Puff - no nuclear..

If you could run nuclear on that basis, it would be a no-brainer; you could insure against the total loss of the plant without difficulty, just like any other chemical plant or petroleum refinery.  However, the Price-Anderson act makes any nuclear accident the responsibility of all nuclear plants.  That's a higher burden than anything else has to meet.
so you proponents of nuclear power, how will you feel if Syria,Iran,Iraq,and Cuba want nuclear power too?
Let 'em have PWRs.  The UAE and others are installing them, the spent fuel is useless for weapons purposes... what's not to like?
how bout North Korea and Pakistan?
Did they use commercial PWRs for weapons purposes?  No?  Did you have a point?
It will take only one real nuclear bomb(or one "dirty bomb") going off to far outweigh all these claimed benefits.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thriving cities today.  The damage from other laws and trends are far worse than a few tens of kilotons of nuclear explosives in 1945.



The same could be said for chemical or biological. We don't stop making chemicals, we just restrict who can get them. This is the same with biological materials.

I don't think every country can be stopped from doing anything, we keep an eye on them and the world has sanctions for going over the line, so far so good.


1. Countries with nuclear weapons will probably go from 10 to 30+ by 2100 or so.

2. Countries with killer drones will probable go from 10 to 50+ by 2050 or so.

3. People will assault weapons in USA will probably go from 10,000,000+ to 50,000,000+ by 2050 or so.

All three above will not kill more than 0.01% of those of us being silently killed by burning fossil fuels and biomass.


I stated, "@KP, to simplify - [nuclear power plants]..just get your private financing and insurance.

Puff - no nuclear.."

and someone I typically respect, Engineer-Poet, responded:

"If you could run nuclear on that basis, it would be a no-brainer; you could insure against the total loss of the plant without difficulty, just like any other chemical plant or petroleum refinery. However, the Price-Anderson act makes any nuclear accident the responsibility of all nuclear plants. That's a higher burden than anything else has to meet."

Wiki notes, "The main purpose of the Act is to partially indemnify the nuclear industry against liability claims arising from nuclear incidents while still ensuring compensation coverage for the general public."

For the heck of it, I'll rephrase my statement:

Only the absolute dictatorial powers of Government - "out of the barrel of a gun." - whether that gun be Communist Red China or freedom Federal taxes - will finance future(past) nuclear power plants.

There are nearly 20 comments(and one link) as I write this. I'll multiply references by several times:

"..more than tripling the world's background radiation level."

"..which will slide over the existing sarcophagus to seal in the remaining nuclear fuel - at an estimated cost of 2 billion dollars."

"Photographer Gerd Ludwig gearing up for a 15-minute entry into the highly contaminated Reactor #4 - the maximum he and the shift workers are allowed to spend in a single day.

After 25 years, fortunately there is a location for 'up close' nuclear support..


It all depends on what kind of world you want.
If you believe: that a world full of vehicles that are likely to be mostly rechargeable with very little ICE to them, that bringing 7-8 billion to near European middle class life standards (not to mention american middle class, if they still exist), that pushing technology into post-industrial and service-based levels throughout the world, and that creating the type of infrastructure and agriculture system to support all this is a worthwhile endeavour over the next generation or two, you are likely to believe that the electrical production required will be far, far above that level of power production that currently exists. You are also likely to believe that maintaining a cost of power at current levels will be required to allow all this society development to happen. You need to ask yourself by what means can we increase capacity by several fold (likely) by a method that will not conflict with less and less reliable sources of oil, gas, and coal. You need to also honestly ask yourself if you think conservation and renewable sources can provide all this. You need to ask yourself whether you can happily and socially be accepted, and prosper by living a life where you need to cut back on using power when met with difficulties such as regional brownouts, cost spikes, and renewable power business and production uncertainty. Its is nice to be principled in hopes that you will have enough resilient followers to promote your (forever in the) future vision, but practicality is a harsh and relentless mistress (usually named also as reality). Our society is built and continues to prosper based on technology and production, almost exclusively by using power. Use whatever source is necessary to meet demand cheaply and reliably. Prolonging the debate only damages that which power could help maintain and promote. Each region has a series of possible sources that can provide - it may be hydroelectric, gas, or nuclear. Expert reports are ubiquitous. Read them - they contain financial as well as health assessments, and often even employment and growth opportunities. Barely informed bickering and high-principle activism is the most inefficient and negative form of democracy and citizen participation out there.


Hiroshima and Nagasaki are thriving cities today only because their reconstruction was started soon after the war, in an era when that was more important to the occupying forces than the health concerns of a bunch of "Japs." As it stands today even in a country that has a worldclass Universal Health Care System that keeps the average citizen remarkably healthy the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their children, still receive special attention and extra care.



per ai vin link, "..Many survivors, struggle to maintain normal lives, suffer from physical, emotional and financial hardship as a result of their exposure and additional health concerns due to aging as well as the health concerns of the second generation."

Without government funds, the decline of nuclear power is default.

As a electrical engineer, who would embrace the "..abundant, meter-less" power of my youth, I've often wondered why 70 years of nuclear power implementations seem so STUPID:

Don't place reactors in high populations for most potential accident damage. A extra percent grid loss seems a low price for a safer location.

Build some redundant water cooling AWAY from a potentially damaged reactor - so fuel can be cooled, not cooling destroyed at the accident site.

On higher view, aren't present reactors PRONE/designed to run-away and radiate, given a accident?

Don't thorium reactors have to be forced to run - quietly, harmlessly naturally shutting down in an accident.

Since the nuclear power industry seems to prefer danger (and producing plutonium for bombs?), it's killed it's credibility and private funding.

I don't claim to be an expert, but nor is the fifty-one or more percent having won the vote against privately building future nuclear power.


Only USA has intentionally used nuclear bombs to directly and indirectly kill 200,000+ people instead of equivalent or even more killing on both sides with another 12 to 24 months of a deadly trade war. This is also the last war that USA really won?

The few hundred nuclear reactors in operation, for 50+ years in certain areas, have caused minute casualties compared to burning fossil fuels, ethanol and biomass.

Should fossil fuels (Coal, Oil and NG) producers and users collectively pay for the direct and indirect damages they caused and are still causing? A progressive carbon tax of up to $100/tonne would not be an exaggeration.

Past damages could be paid with some of the $31T hidden in 'Tax Heavens'

Alberta will soon raise the carbon tax on Tar Sand operation emissions from $4/tonne to $40/tonne to force operators to use improved oil extraction methods with reduced emissions and to make the XL Pipelines more acceptable to Americans. Will the regulation die on the way to become law?

Corn based ethanol producers and users should also collectively pay for all the damages they create. Lake Erie (and other rivers and lake) are quickly being invaded by green/blue deadly algae created by runoffs from corn extra production. A progressive $0.56/gal levy on ethanol produced and or imported would not be an exaggeration and would be essential to find and apply ways to reduce run offs and to clean the existing mess.

Kit P

“I don't claim to be an expert ”

I am an expert.

“and producing plutonium for bombs? ”

Commercial reactors are designed to produce electricity. No commercial reactors have ever been used to make plutonium for bombs. Not a very practical to use power reactors to make weapons material.

“On higher view, aren't present reactors PRONE/designed to run-away and radiate, given a accident? ”


“Don't place reactors in high populations ”

Nuke plants are not placed in cities.

“Build some redundant water cooling AWAY from a potentially damaged reactor ”

All US licensed reactors have redundant cooling systems and supplies of water.

“Without government funds, the decline of nuclear power is default. ”

Commercial reactors are not subsidized and pay lots of taxes.

“70 years of nuclear power implementations ”

Commercial nuke plants started making electricity about 55 years ago. Based on ten years of experience, the current fleet of nuke plants have proved very durable and have been evaluated to run for 60 years. It would seem that the pioneers in nuclear power were very smart people to design systems that are still productive 30 years after they retire.


Experts? excuse me if i express humorous disbelief.

guy who reads everything to do with nuclear plants/politics NOT expert.
journalist/manager/writer who researches/talks to nuclear PhDs everyday NOT expert.
analyst/activist/hobbyist/non-tech-Prof who follows industry closely NOT expert.
technician who works on or near energy facility for less than 10 years without policy responsibilities NOT expert.

nuclear physicist/engineer PhD with 20 years on-site experience + policy consultant = expert.
nuclear physicist/engineer PhD with 20 years on-site experience + policy consultant DOES NOT COMMENT on

Its nice to chat on this blog and good to have a wide range of (interesting) opinions - but keep it real.

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